BMCR 2022.02.06

Xenophon’s Socratic works

, Xenophon's Socratic works. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 342. ISBN 9780367472047 $160.00.


‘Xenophon is ripe for rehabilitation’, pronounced Simon Goldhill in his 1998 BMCR review of one of the main ports-of-call for Anglophone readers with an interest in Xenophon’s Socratic writings, Vivienne J. Gray’s The Framing of Socrates: The Literary Interpretation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Goldhill justly praised Gray’s work as ‘a cautious and scholarly step in this direction’, and David M. Johnson equally justly acknowledges it as ‘the most important study of the literary form of the Memorabilia to date’ (33). As will be no surprise to readers of Johnson’s published articles on Xenophon, his book deserves to establish itself as the leading English-language monograph on the Socratic works, and as a worthy addition to the seminal writings of Louis-André Dorion (with which Johnson engages in occasional but friendly disagreement, without concealing his deep respect).[1] What is more (and this is a tribute to Xenophon as much as to Johnson), it should prove equally attractive to those of literary, historical, and philosophical interests.

A sketch of the book’s structure is essential to understanding Johnson’s intellectual agenda. The book starts with a helpful ‘Introduction’ that sets out his ‘compatibilist’ position on the relation between Xenophon and Plato—a position grounded in the notion of an ‘intertextual Socrates’. Key to this notion is the idea that Xenophon is aware of, and responding to, some of the early works of Plato, and consciously filling in some gaps in the Platonic exposition or seeking to improve in other ways on the Platonic depiction. Throughout, Johnson clearly sets out points of contact and difference with Dorion’s ‘other Socrates’: while Dorion stresses the contrasts in the two authors’ presentations, Johnson questions some of these and attempts to integrate others into a coherent image of Socrates.

Chapters 1-3 are concerned with the defence of Socrates. The first chapter, ‘Approaching the Memorabilia’, sketches that work’s literary contexts, which are shown to include forensic oratory, the recollections of Ion of Chios, the Aesopic tradition, other Socratic writings, and wisdom literature (though Johnson assigns rather less weight to this last category than Gray). Chapter 2, ‘Defending Socrates’, proceeds to analyse the method of the Memorabilia. Johnson helpfully builds on earlier scholarship to give a rich picture of the varied ways in which Xenophon, at times directly, at times indirectly, cumulatively builds a defence of Socrates; particularly noteworthy is the discussion of Xenophon’s use of implicit defence in the areas of religion and politics, where Socrates’ unconventionality made him liable to attack. The key claim of these two chapters is that it is to the Memorabilia, and not either the Xenophontic or the Platonic Apology, that scholars must turn to understand the accusations that led to Socrates’ condemnation. And an understanding of that context in turn helps explain the manner of ‘Xenophon’s Apology’, which is discussed in Chapter 3. For Johnson, the Memorabilia explains why the Athenians prosecuted Socrates—and why it was wrong, but not surprising, that they did so. The Apology, by contrast, is Xenophon’s attempt (written partly in competition, partly in agreement, with Plato) to show that Socrates’ boastfulness was not only justified, but also designed to secure a guilty verdict.

Chapters 4-6 focus more tightly on Xenophon’s presentation of aspects of Socrates’ thought and method. Chapter 4, ‘The moral psychology of Xenophon’s Socrates’, is the most philosophical of Johnson’s chapters. Drawing on the Memorabilia, it illuminates the doctrine of self-mastery or enkrateia, which enables wisdom to overcome desires while itself providing a superior kind of pleasure. Johnson is again attentive to literary strategies, as he presents the Memorabilia as a work that gradually amplifies and complicates its message. He reverts, too, to the ‘intertextual Socrates’, stressing Xenophon’s value as a complementary source both for Socrates’ view of non-rational motivation and for his conception of the practicality of wisdom.

Chapters 5 and 6, in turn, are (as Johnson notes) relatively free-standing chapters, devoted to the Symposium and Oeconomicus respectively—two works which stand comparison with the Platonic dialogues in their literary form and inventiveness. In discussing the Symposium, Johnson enters into debate with Clifford Hindley and Gabriel Danzig on how Xenophon presents Socrates’ attitude to sexual self-control, arguing that distinctions must be drawn between those who possess and those who lack self-mastery and between different sorts of potential sexual partner. There is helpfully explicit engagement with previous scholarship in the treatment of the Oeconomicus too: Johnson offers a nuanced re-alignment of Leo Strauss’s ironizing readings of the gentleman farmer Ischomachus, underscoring that the distinction between his and the Socratic mode of life is valid, but that Ischomachus can himself be seen as a flawed representative of the life of the gentleman. His flaws partly emerge, Johnson argues, when read against the evidence for the treatment of marriage in Aeschines’ Aspasia; the argument might have been further strengthened by discussion of the structural parallel between farming and warfare within the Persian empire (which are both overseen by the unifying figure of the Persian king) and the complementary feminine and masculine spheres within household management (where there is no higher-level unifying figure, except implicitly the husband who persuades the wife of their complementarity).[2] Besides discussing these works’ main themes, Johnson also offers illuminating remarks on Socrates’ didactic methods. In the Symposium, Socrates’ charm is seen as defusing potential conflict, while in the Oeconomicus the structure of the dialogue directs attention to the response of Critobulus, the immediate recipient of Socrates’ discourse. At the same time, Johnson is open to destabilizing readings of both works, based on the alluring erotic dance which closes the Symposium and on what, historically, seems likely to have happened to Ischomachus’ wife after the dramatic date of the Oeconomicus.

This sketch shows something of the variety of Johnson’s book. Johnson is himself aware of the fact that different chapters may appeal to different readers, and he accordingly provides helpful guidance for possible paths through the book. Rather than being a weakness, however, the variety should itself be seen as matching the variety of Xenophon’s Socratic oeuvre. If Johnson’s case is that Xenophon drew on different literary modes to defend Socrates and explicate Socratic teaching, then it is only appropriate that he resorts to different styles of argument to explicate Xenophon’s method. And it may be worth adding that his structural division maps in a timely way with the division of the Socratic works in forthcoming editions in the Oxford World’s Classics, with translations of Oeconomicus and Symposium by Anthony Verity, and of Memorabilia and Apology by Martin Hammond, with introductions and notes by Emily Baragwanath and Carol Atack respectively, scheduled for 2022.

It remains to read Johnson’s monograph against recent trends in Xenophontic scholarship. Two main problems have affected recent approaches to Xenophon’s Socratic works in the discipline of Classics: first, the question of how to engage with the writings of Leo Strauss and his followers in the discipline of Political Science; second, the very perception of the need to rehabilitate Xenophon. Johnson skirts these problems skilfully. With regard to the first, he does engage briefly with the work of one recent Straussian who has written on the Memorabilia, Thomas Pangle, and briefly, too, as already noted, with Strauss himself. But he does not allow himself to be straitjacketed by the shallow opposition between the approach of Classicists (who read the lines) and Straussians (who read between the lines). Like many of the most rewarding recent Xenophontic scholars, he looks beyond the conventional simplicity of Xenophon and detects areas of darkness and irony. He departs from the stereotypical Straussian, however, in grounding these readings in history (as noted above for the Oeconomicus) and in the clarity and elegance of his own exposition (Johnson himself adverts to Strauss’ ‘characteristically obscure’ mode of analysis (248)).

What of the second problem—the rehabilitation of Xenophon? Johnson is aware of the tradition since the nineteenth century of denigrating Xenophon and promoting Plato in his stead. But he succeeds in advocating for Xenophon (as his own Xenophon does for Socrates) in a subtle and unobtrusive way that is compatible with the goal of promoting scholarly understanding. And yet, while it is understandable that Johnson sees the need to engage with negative modern responses to Xenophon, it is now getting on for half a century since the publication of a book widely seen as an important step in the process of rehabilitation – W. E. Higgins’ 1977 monograph Xenophon the Athenian, which Johnson praises as ‘a voice in the wilderness’ (23 n. 5) and as still ‘the best book-length introduction to Xenophon’ (25 n. 36). Perhaps writers on Xenophon should no longer feel such a strong need to defend their scholarly interests.

A further challenge for Xenophon studies more broadly results both from the diversity of Xenophon’s writings and from the recent proliferation of writings on Xenophon—witness the foundation of an International Xenophon Society and the online conference held under its aegis in July this year (itself a successor to the major Xenophon conferences held face-to-face in Liverpool in 1999 and 2009). If this increase in scholarship raises the spectre of specialization, then the strengths of Johnson’s monograph make more pressing the question of how to integrate the Socratic works with Xenophon’s other writings. What difference does it make if one approaches Xenophon via philosophy (and Plato) or via historiography (and Thucydides)? Johnson himself has in the past written an enlightening article on the Cyropaedia;[3] there is still scope for work that spans the philosophy/historiography division and offers an image of Xenophon the Athenian for the 2020s informed by works such as the one under review.[4]


[1] Especially the Budé Memorabilia (co-edited with M. Bandini) and the essays collected in L’Autre Socrate: Études sure les écrits socratiques de Xénophon (Paris, 2013).

[2] A different approach to the same issue can be found in C. Pelling, Literary Texts and the Greek Historian (London, 2000) 236–45, a discussion that Johnson does not cite.

[3] ‘Persians as Centaurs in Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia”’, TAPhA 135 (2005) 177–207.

[4] The book is generally well edited, with few typographic errors (I may perhaps be excused for picking one out: for ‘Huitnik and Rood’ (58 n. 18, cf. 298) read ‘Huitink and Rood’).